Martial Truths: It’s Not A Sport

Yesterday I was talking about the HEMA scene to a layperson and they referred to what we did as “your sport”. This is wrong for these reasons:

  1. There’s no sport. Yes, there are competitions when groups meet up, and certainly some people view these as competitive events where the goal is dominance; but most gatherings are foremost about a technical exchange, so the competition places that technique in practice.
  2. More importantly, there’s no you. Unlike the vairous governing bodies like the Kung Fu council and FIE there isn’t a single governing body for HEMA. That hasn’t stopped some people from trying to impose one, but in the end groups like HEMAC and BFHS are groups of affiliated but diverse interest groups.

To explain the problem with calling it “sport” I need to reference J. Christoph Amberger’s Secret History of the Sword, where the author talks about two kinds of conflict. Of those two Antagonistic conflict is further divided between:

  • Combat for Dominion or Survival (“war”)
  • Comment combat (“duel”)

Amberger breaks these down by scenario (battlefield, affairs of honour, etc.), Motivation, and crucially by

  • Projected Intent (i.e. what threat does the opposition appear to present)
  • Awareness of risk (high for both cases)
  • Fear level, and Stress level.

Similarly agonistic combat is sub-divided between

  • Competitive combat (“sport”)
  • Theatrical combat (“stage”)

Unsurprisingly the perception of risk, stress and fear levels are lower in agonistic conflict, where the intent is not to cause lasting harm because you want everyone to come back to the next class. And it would seem that our end-of-class sparring or assaulting fits the model of competitive combat. So, why not call that “sport”?

The problem with that term is it fixates on the wrong goal. Modern three-weapon fencing, whilst being great for fitness and form is a country mile away from defensive arts practiced in the long 18th century. It is a sport because it’s goal oriented; and the fact is, two fencers may contre-temps with one another and exchange what would be fatal thrusts, and one side will still be awarded a point on quite arbitrary grounds (because they straightened their arm first and had priority).

Fixation on winning points leads to thuggery, especially in the inexperienced. And artless thuggery benefits greatly from physical advantage (through brawling, intimidating behaviour, etc.). And while you can train someone in art well enough to overcome the thugs, a new student with promise may well be put off and quit long before they achieve those lessons, because all they see are artless thugs intent on dominating and winning, with no intent on improving their actual skill.

It should be clear why this problem can exist in the first place: there is no threat, no perception of risk, and this modifies behaviour. Hope was well aware of the difference between salle-play (agonistic) and a lethal attack at sharps (antagonistic) and how it modified behaviour, and he prepared his students thus — fancy tricks for the salle, but keep it simple and stick to what you know in a fight for your life, and think to your own defence first.

The modern fencing salle should be a safe place to train in, so factors of fear (and to an extent, stress) are massively diminished. Instead we have other ways to modify behaviour in combat. Free-play is collaborative rather than competitive, so more like Theatrical exchange; and for assaulting, changing the conditions of victory massively changes behaviour away from thuggery towards art (for example, only allowing scoring off the riposte).

I despise the word sport in conjunction with martial arts, because it legitimises winning as a be-all and end-all; and this leads to a callous, sink-or-swim culture, normalised in a particular demographic. Ours isn’t a sport, it’s a science.

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  • Not particularly different to how we practice and play the work cricket. Definitely not prioritising scoring points over inclusiveness, fitness, Fun, being able to socialise, learning technique, etc. I guess in many activities there is a sport practice and a social practice.